Cokie Roberts Dies; Veteran Broadcast Journalist Was 75

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Cokie Roberts, who drew on her upbringing in a powerful political family to fashion a career as a leading Washington journalist for NPR and ABC News, bringing a tough, knowledgeable voice to the rough-and-tumble political arena at a time when few women had national profiles in the news business, died on Tuesday in Washington. She was 75.

ABC News, in a posting on its website, said the cause was breast cancer.

Ms. Roberts was known to millions for both her reporting and her commentaries, moving easily among radio, television and print to explain the impact of world events and the intricacies of policy debates. And in books like “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (2008) and “Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868” (2015) she highlighted the often overlooked role of women in history, especially political history.

“Cokie Roberts was a trailblazer,” Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, said on Twitter, “who transformed the role of women in the newsroom & our history books as she told the stories of the unsung women who built our nation.”

Ms. Roberts, who joined NPR in the late 1970s and ABC News in 1988, carved out a career that served as an example to later generations of women in journalism.

“I’m proud as hell — proud as hell — to work at a news organization that has ‘Founding Mothers’ whom we all look up to,” Danielle Kurtzleben, an NPR reporter, said on Twitter. “God bless Cokie Roberts.”

In a statement, former President Barack Obama and the former first lady Michelle Obama called Ms. Roberts “a role model to young women at a time when the profession was still dominated by men; a constant over 40 years of a shifting media landscape and changing world, informing voters about the issues of our time and mentoring young journalists every step of the way.”

And President Trump, speaking to reporters on Air Force One en route to California from New Mexico, said of Ms. Roberts: “I never met her. She never treated me nicely. But I would like to wish her family well. She was a professional and I respect professionals. I respect you guys a lot, you people a lot. She was a real professional. Never treated me well, but I certainly respect her as a professional.”

If Ms. Roberts brought keen insight to her work, that was in part because she was a child of politicians, one who first walked the halls of Congress as a girl. Her father was Hale Boggs, a longtime Democratic representative from Louisiana who in the early 1970s was House majority leader. After he died in a plane crash in 1972, his wife and Ms. Roberts’s mother, Lindy Boggs, was elected to fill his seat. She served until 1991 and later became United States ambassador to the Vatican.

Ms. Roberts’s background gave her a deep respect for the government institutions she covered, and she didn’t hold herself or her journalism colleagues blameless for the problems of government. “We are quick to criticize and slow to praise,” she said in a commencement address at Boston College in 1994.

“But,” she told the crowd, “it’s also your fault.” Constituents, she said, needed to allow members of Congress to make the tough votes and “let that person live to fight another day.”

In an oral history recorded for the House of Representatives in 2007 and 2008, she expanded on the impact her childhood experiences had in shaping her views about America.

“Because I spent time in the Capitol and particularly in the House of Representatives, I became deeply committed to the American system,” she said. “And as close up and as personally as I saw it and saw all of the flaws, I understood all of the glories of it.”

“Here we are, so different from each other,” she added, “with no common history or religion or ethnicity or even language these days, and what brings us together is the Constitution and the institutions that it created. And the first among those is Congress. The very word means coming together. And the fact that messily and humorously and all of that, it happens — it doesn’t happen all the time, and it doesn’t always happen well, but it happens — is a miracle.”

Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs was born on Dec. 27, 1943, in New Orleans. She said that her brother, Tommy, invented her nickname because he couldn’t say “Corinne.”

She, her brother and her sister, Barbara, were immersed in political life, accompanying their father on campaign trips, attending ceremonial functions and listening to the dinner-table discussions that ensued when other political leaders visited the home.

“Our parents did not have the children go away when the grown-ups came,” Ms. Roberts said. “In retrospect, I’ve sometimes wondered, ‘What did those people think to have all these children around all the time?’ But we were around, and it was great for us.”

Although her father had considerable influence on her, so did her mother, who was active in furthering her father’s career, along with other women she came to know, like Lady Bird Johnson.

“I was very well aware of the influence of these women,” she said, adding, “I very much grew up with a sense, from them, that women could do anything, and that they could sort of do a whole lot of things at the same time.”

It was a theme she teased out in her 1998 book, “We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters.”

“For years my mother kept telling me that it’s nothing new to have women as soldiers, as diplomats, as politicians, as revolutionaries, as explorers, as founders of large institutions, as leaders in business; that the women of my generation did not invent the wheel,” she wrote. “In the past women might not have had the titles, she painstakingly and patiently explained, but they did the jobs that fit those descriptions.”

Ms. Roberts attended Catholic schools in New Orleans and Bethesda, Md., and graduated from Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1964 with a degree in political science. In 1966 she married Steven V. Roberts, who was a correspondent then for The New York Times. Journalism was a largely male world at the time, something driven home to her when she went job hunting.

“In 1966 I left an on-air anchor television job in Washington, D.C., to get married,” she told The Times in 1994. “My husband was at The New York Times. For eight months I job-hunted at various New York magazines and television stations, and wherever I went I was asked how many words I could type.”

[Read about Ms. Roberts’ marriage, which lasted for more than half a century.]

She eventually became a radio correspondent for CBS before joining NPR. (Sources give both 1977 and 1978 as her start year at NPR.) With her fellow newswomen Nina Totenberg and Linda Wertheimer, she began to change the journalistic landscape.

“As a troika they have succeeded in revolutionizing political reporting,” The Times wrote in that 1994 article. “Twenty years ago Washington journalism was pretty much a male game, like football and foreign policy. But along came demure Linda, delicately crashing onto the presidential campaign press bus; then entered bulldozer Nina, with major scoops on Douglas Ginsburg and Anita Hill; and in came tart-tongued Cokie with her savvy Congressional reporting. A new kind of female punditry was born.”

Ms. Roberts wrote a syndicated political column with her husband for many years. They lived in Europe for a time in the 1970s, and over the years she covered international stories, but Washington was her main turf. She covered Congress at a time when her mother was an increasingly important member of it, though that proved to be not as big a benefit to her professionally as it might have seemed, Ms Roberts said.

“She would never tell me anything,” she said in the oral history. “She was disgustingly discreet.”

Ms. Boggs died in 2013.

At ABC, Ms. Roberts’s roles included anchoring, with Sam Donaldson, the Sunday morning political affairs program “This Week” from 1996 to 2002. She continued to provide segments for NPR even after joining ABC. The difference between the two, she said, was partly a matter of airtime.

“My average piece from the Hill for NPR would be four and a half minutes,” she said, “and my average piece for ABC would be a minute 15.”

At NPR, one of her regular segments was “Ask Cokie,” in which she used her vast knowledge of Washington, politics and history to answer listeners’ question on matters major, minor and obscure. One asked whether nuclear weapons could be launched by executive order only, absent Congressional authorization. One wanted to know where the phrase “lame duck session” came from.

In a recent installment pegged to the 100th anniversary of the House vote to approve the 19th Amendment, Steve Inskeep, the host, found himself interrupted by Ms. Roberts when he used the phrase “granting women the right to vote” to introduce the segment.

“No, no, no, no, no granting — no granting,” Ms. Roberts said in her characteristically emphatic style. “We had the right to vote as American citizens. We didn’t have to be granted it by some bunch of guys.”

She is survived by her husband; her two children, Lee and Rebecca Roberts; and six grandchildren.

Ms. Roberts received numerous honors, including sharing in several Emmy Awards. In 2008, the Library of Congress named her as a recipient of one of its “Living Legends” awards.

Ms. Roberts long had a front-row seat to history. In a 2017 interview with Kentucky Educational Television, she recalled a moment when she had to remind herself not to become jaded by that proximity. It was March 2013, and she was waiting in a cold rain for the Vatican smoke signal that would soon announce the selection of Pope Francis.

“Hundreds of thousands of people are pouring into St. Peter’s Square with the rain deluging them,” she said. “And my first reaction was: ‘Who are these people? What are they doing? That is crazy.’ And then I thought, ‘You jerk,’ to myself. ‘You are really not getting it. This is a moment in history that will be maybe the only time in all of these people’s lives that they have this front seat to history, and you’re so privileged you get it all the time.’”

But, she also reflected, big-stage moments give journalists only one part of the larger picture of their times.

“The individual interview with someone who is a mom in a shopping mall,” she said, “can tell you more about what’s going on in the world and how people feel about it than any of those grand things.”

Peter Baker contributed reporting from aboard Air Force One.